Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For a crime novel to be called ‘atmospheric,’ it’s got to give the reader not just a sense of physical location but also a sense of the mood and the ambience of that place. To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look at an atmospheric crime novel and turn the spotlight on Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money.
Ghost Money begins when Madeleine Avery hires Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles. Since leaving the police force, Quinlan has hung out his shingle as a PI and has shown that he has skill at finding lost people, especially people who don’t want to be found. So he’s a solid choice for the job of finding Charles Avery. Madeleine has other reasons for hiring Quinlan too. One is that her brother was last known to be in Bangkok, and Quinlan’s lived and worked there. Quinlan takes the case and goes to Charles Avery’s Bangkok apartment only to find the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds proof that Avery has gone to Cambodia.
For several reasons Quinlan doesn’t want to call attention to himself in Bangkok so he’s not unhappy to leave when Madeleine asks him to follow her brother’s trail to Cambodia. He arrives in Phnom Penh and begins to ask some questions about Avery. Most people aren’t willing to say much about the missing man, mostly because they fear the consequences of talking too much. Avery had been involved in some very shady deals, and had gotten the wrong people angry. What’s more, he claimed to know about a hidden cache of gold. A lot of people didn’t believe him, thinking this was just another scam. But some very nasty and powerful people did – people who would cheerfully kill to get their hands on the treasure if it exists. And when they find out that Quinlan is asking questions about Avery, they take an unhealthy (for Quinlan) interest in him.
Still, Quinlan finds a few people who are willing to help him. One is Anthony Gillies, an Australian correspondent for several news outlets. The other is Gillies’ assistant and interpreter Heng Sarin. Even though Gillies helps Quinlan only for the chance at an exclusive story, he provides some useful information and contacts. Sarin proves even more valuable. In fact, without spoiling the story I think I can say that Sarin proves to be extremely loyal to Quinlan and as the story goes on, they develop a solid and interesting bond.
Quinlan and Sarin pursue the leads they find about Avery’s whereabouts from Phnom Penh to the northern part of Cambodia. As the story develops, they find out the truth about the murder of Robert Lee, about Avery’s flight to Cambodia, about the gold he supposedly had access to, and about where he is now. And in the end, Quinlan is able to answer Madeleine Avery’s questions about her brother.
This is as I mentioned an atmospheric story. So through the novel we get a strong sense of what it’s really like to be in Cambodia, especially the parts of the country that the tourists don’t get to see. We see the way the people live, we see how things are done in Cambodia and we what life is like in a beautiful country that’s been torn apart for decades by war, poverty and foreign politics. It’s worth noting that Nette neither condescends to the Cambodian people nor makes light of life there. I’ll admit I’ve never been there but the setting, context and types of people ring very true.
This is a thriller in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of action and several twists in the story. There are narrow escapes and the story is fast-paced. There are several places where it’s clear that one doesn’t know whom to trust. There’s violence too and some of it is unpleasant. So readers who prefer their crime fiction to be low on violence will want to beware. But that said, the violence is not unnecessarily drawn-out and it’s not out of place in the larger context of the story.
The story is told against a backdrop of political intrigue, so we learn some of Cambodia’s recent history. Through people’s memories, official documents and so on, the reader is told a little about how Cambodia was involved in the war in Vietnam, how the Khmer Rouge came into power, what happened when the Vietnamese ended that regime and what the political effects have been of that sad era in Cambodia. There’s also truly chilling information about the Pol Pot regime and the millions of people who suffered and were killed during those years. Nette doesn’t ‘overload’ the reader with facts; rather, we see this history through the eyes of the people who lived it and through what it’s done to them. The era is brought to a very human level.
Another element that runs through this novel is the set of assumptions people have, and what the consequences of those assumptions can be. For instance, Quinlan is half Vietnamese (His father was Australian) and Madeleine Avery has certain assumptions about him because of it. So do several people Quinlan meets during his search for Avery. More than one person believes that he is from Vietnam (he’s lived in Australia almost all his life actually) and speaks Vietnamese (he doesn’t). And for reasons Nette explains in the novel, most Cambodians have no love for the Vietnamese. So Quinlan has to completely re-think what it means to have a part-Vietnamese identity. Quinlan has assumptions too that he has to confront. He finds out quickly for instance that getting things done in Cambodia isn’t at all the same as getting things done in Thailand, with which he’s familiar. Quinlan isn’t the stereotypical ‘White person who has misconceptions about Asians’ so he thinks he doesn’t have the prejudgements that too many people have. It turns out that he’s wrong.
Quinlan’s got an interesting personality and backstory and his history is also an important element in this novel. I won’t give away spoilers, but we learn that his personal history as well as his work in Bangkok play crucial roles in the way he looks at life and the way he interacts with others. Heng Sarin also has an interesting backstory which we learn as the story moves on. He doesn’t have much to say, but he has a deep personal history and an abiding love for his country. He’s seen things that would put most of us in a mental institution and he’s survived. The stories of these two men are told sometimes in flashback, so readers who prefer a strictly chronological order to their stories will be disappointed. But the flashbacks are easy to distinguish from the present-day story and they add richness and depth to the characters.
Ghost Money is a fast-paced truly atmospheric thriller that invites the reader to re-think a lot of ideas. It’s peopled with strong characters and a solid plotline, and offers the reader a unique perspective on an era in history that many people don’t know very well. But what’s your view? Have you read Ghost Money? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 21 January/Tuesday 22 January – Strictly Murder – Lynda Wilcox
Monday 28 January/Tuesday 29 January – Kiss and Tell – T.J. Cooke
Monday 4 February/Tuesday 5 February – Louisiana Bigshot – Julie Smith